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Woolf, To the Lighthouse


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Virginia Woolf
I'm not usually much for going into detail about writers' biographies, but it's evident from Woolf's own writings that she was haunted by biographical ghosts when composing this To the Lighthouse:

This is going to be fairly short; to have father's character done complete in it; and mother's; and St. Ives; and childhood, and all the usual things I try to put in--life, death, etc. But the centre is father's character, sitting in a boat, reciting, We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel.

Her sister Vanessa, after reading the novel, wrote to Virginia that she had created

a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead...... You have given father too I think as clearly but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isn't quite so is so shattering to find oneself face to face with those two again.....

Later, in a diary entry on what would have been her dead father's 96th birthday, Virginia wrote:

I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true--that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

So, here goes with the biography:

Adeline Virginia Stephens (Woolf was her married name) was born into the late Victorian intellectual aristocracy in 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephens, was a distinguished man of letters, acquainted with most of the famous (male) writers of the day, and the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her mother, Julia Duckworth (née Jackson) was a famous beauty and minor author, who occupied herself greatly with good works and published in 1883 a book on the management of sick rooms. Both parents had been married before: her father to the daughter of Victorian novelist William Thackeray (by whom he had a daughter Laura who was mentally disordered and spent most of her 75-year life in an asylum); and her mother to a barrister, Herbert Duckworth, by whom she had three children, George, Stella, and Gerald. Julia and Leslie Stephen had four children together: Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian. All eight children lived with the parents and a number of servants at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Virginia, a nervous and delicate child, was educated at home with her sister, mainly by their parents.

Long summer holidays were spent at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall, memories on which Virginia drew when writing To the Lighthouse (although the novel is ostensibly set on an island way up in the Hebrides). Virginia's two childhood homes, London and St Ives, provided the backdrops to most of her novels.

Virginia's mother died when she was thirteen, and Virginia subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. Her father's extravagant grief reportedly took a strong toll on the children: Virginia's diaries describe how, when her father stumbled towards her from her mother's death bed, she put out her hand to him. He rejected it and hurried on. The scene was imprinted on her memory for life. After the death the girls (Virginia and Vanessa) heard him passing their room, talking to himself: 'I wish I were dead - I wish I were dead - I wish my whiskers would grow.'

In 1904, when Virginia was 22, her father died and she had a severe mental breakdown, during which she heard voices and tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out of the window. She moved with her brothers and sister to Bloomsbury, where they entertained her brothers' Cambridge friends. This became the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group. When her brother Thoby died of typhoid fever in 1906, she suffered a further mental breakdown.

From 1905 she wrote for the Times Literary Supplement and taught at Morley College, Waterloo Road, London from 1907. In 1909 she became engaged to Lytton Strachey, who subsequently called off the engagement. In 1912, she married the writer Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), who cared for her during her bouts of mental illness and provided the stability that enabled her to write.. He gave up his post as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, although he wanted to go back, as he knew she wouldn't leave London. Although Virginia was not sexually interested in men, she hoped to have children. Leonard consulted doctors and was told it was inadvisable because of her health.

In 1914--the year World War I broke out--Virginia was depressed, had delusions, developed a resistance to food and attempted suicide. She had completed her first novel, The Voyage Out, but publication was delayed until 1915, because of the breakdown. In 1916, Leonard was turned down as unfit for military service. In 1917, the Woolfs founded the Hogarth Press, working on a hand-press in their home at Hogarth House, Richmond, Surrey. In 1919, they printed TS Eliot's Poems.

1921 saw Virginia’s first collection of short stories, Monday or Tuesday, most of which were experimental in nature. In 1922 her first experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, appeared. In 1924 the Woolfs moved back to London, to 52 Tavistock Square. In 1925 Mrs. Dalloway was published, followed by To the Lighthouse in 1927, and The Waves in 1931. These three novels are generally considered to be her greatest claim to fame as a modernist writer. Her involvement with the aristocratic novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West led to Orlando (1928), a roman à clef inspired by Vita’s life and ancestors at Knole in Kent. Two talks to women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928 led to A Room of One’s Own (1929), a discussion of women’s writing and its historical economic and social underpinning.

The 1930s were a less happy time for the Woolfs, as the deaths of friends and the prospect of war increasingly overshadowed the decade. Virginia produced Flush (1933), a fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog; The Years (1937), a family saga; Three Guineas (1938), in a sense a successor to A Room of One’s Own; and in 1940 a biography of her friend Roger Fry who had died in 1934. (Her final novel, Between the Acts, was published posthumously in 1941.)

From July 1940, the Woolfs became afraid of Nazi invasion (Leonard was Jewish), and they decided to gas themselves with car fumes if the invasion came. They kept enough petrol for this purpose. By 1941, Leonard became increasingly concerned about the deterioration in Virginia's health. Her depression grew as the fear of madness enveloped her. On 28 March 1941, she loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse at Rodmell, Sussex, where she drowned.

Study questions

  1. Consider the significance of the title: a journey! Are there echoes of other "journey" works we have read (say, the Odyssey).....?

  2. What is knowledge in this novel, and how is it attained?

  3. Conisider the relationships between pairs of characters: Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. What do these relationships represent? What do the concerned parties stand for? Why are so many people's feelings for each other represented as ambivalent?

  4. What is the significance (literal and figurative/symbolic) of the lighthouse in the novel? Why is it important to go "to the lighthouse," and for which characters?

  5. What other material objects in the novel do double duty as symbols? How do they work?

  6. How does gender work in this novel? Is it about "the human condition," or about separate, gendered "human conditions," or is gender part of "the human condition"?

  7. Why is it significant that Lily Briscoe is an artist? What is the significance of her painting? What is her relationship to other characters in the novel? Why is she unable to finish the painting in the first section of the novel?

  8. Many of the characters in To the Lighthouse have read or are reading the "Great Books." What is the attitude of this text towards the literary tradition we've been studying this year? In what ways is knowledge of this tradition enabling or debilitating for these characters?

  9. We've seen the novelistic narrative evolve, from Austen's omniscient narrator who is closely identified with Elizabeth Bennet's perspective (but tends not to share her voice), to Dostoevsky's omniscient narrator who makes extensive use of free indirect discourse (as well as a staggering amount of direct speech) in a number of different "voices." What innovations does Woolf introduce? In what ways is the form of the novel "modern," "experimental," or "radical"? How does Woolf use narrative to unsettle traditional conceptions of narrative progress, focus, chronology, character, and motivation?

  10. Finally, but most importantly, look closely at the dinner party that forms the centerpiece of the novel (pp. 82-111). What is the significance of the dinner party? What is revealed about the characters? How do they interact with one another? What are their attitudes towards one another and how do these attitudes change during the course of the scene? What symbols are present and how are these used/transformed?

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